Mano Nero

Bille Brown Studio (Queensland Theatre Company)


By Adam Grossetti

Professional production

Cane cutters in North Queensland in the 1930s? Think Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, traumatic long-term relationships, the end of an era, and the universal biting pain of love-gone-wrong.

Not in Adam Grossetti’s latest play, which won the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award last year. This is home-town history, telling of the brief but notorious reign on the Italian Black Hand movement in the Ingham cane fields in the 1930s, and of how the law-abiding permanent Italian community there managed to get rid of them, although not without a great deal of violence and bloodshed on both sides.

Great material for a ball-busting drama studded with Sydney prostitutes who wear their stilettos in their handbags rather than on their feet, tunnel-vision racist police, dirty doings in the dongas and gang wars par excellence.

Add to this Bruce McKinvan’s sugarcane jungle, higher than an elephant’s eye, clever sub-textual lighting from the ubiquitous Matt Scott ,and appropriate noises-off from Brett Collery, and you have everything in place to chill the heart and generate nightmares.

If only, if only. But this play or maybe it’s the production commits the worst of all theatrical sins. It’s downright boring, and I can only sympathise with the young woman sitting next to me who snored the night through on her partner’s shoulder.

What’s gone wrong here? The idea, that ultimately good can overcome evil even in gang warfare, is a universal one, and the pitting of one ethnic subculture against another adds depth to the plot. But it just doesn’t work.

It’s partly the script, which is confusing from the beginning, and doesn’t establish well enough the motivation for Vincenzo’s rejection by the other workers. It doesn’t help, either, that Tony Poli initially plays him as a victimised outsider, so that he has all our sympathy, and it takes a great shift of belief for us to think of him later as the arch-villain.

One of the other problems is with the casting. It’s not that the actors aren’t good at what they’re doing, but the men look very much alike in their cane-cutters’ trousers and singlets, and I, for example, could hardly distinguish Joss McWilliam, an actor whose face is very familiar, from the others. Add this to the rather superficial character development, and it takes more than half an hour to work out who’s doing what, and with which, and to whom. The fact that the program includes a detailed synopsis of the plot underscores my impression of the play’s impenetrability, for surely a plot should be able to speak for itself.

I can’t give explicit examples, but my general impression was that both director and actors were also having trouble finding any emotional power in this story. There was a lot of going through the motions, off-stage sound-and-fury, and strange reappearances of murdered characters (Richard III the night before the battle of Bosworth Field?), but none of it seemed to matter, because when it came down to it, none of the actors, not even the super-talented Veronica Neave as the Sydney prostitute, was able to make me believe that their passion was real and their plight credible.

Others may have different opinions, but I can only speak as I found. Mano Nero may have been an award-winning script, but words on a page don’t always translate happily to the stage, and neither director nor cast were able to make this play come alive for me. If it succeeds at all, it’s because of the lighting and set design, but I think it needed a forceful dramaturg working on the script before it was given the ultimate accolade of a main-house production.

Directed by Jean Marc Russ

Playing until 9 July 2005. Tuesdays at 6.30pm, matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 1pm, evenings Wednesday–Saturday at 7.30pm (Thursday 23 June, night with the artists).

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes including 20 minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 9th June 2005)